Learning - Invisible College, Virtual Academia and Established Academia

1 - What and how

I've been using the Internet for non-forrmal, peer-to-peer learning and collaboration since 2000. I'm not just interested in what I'm learning. I'm also deeply interested in how I learn i.e. the opportunites that have been opening up thanks to the Internet. I care about inclusion, about the impact (actual and potential) of digital technologies on the roles of teachers and learners, the opportunities for knowledge creation, and much more besides. I don't just "care" about these things. I do stuff, I think deeply about what I do, and I explore ideas with others.

2 - An unusual perspective

I bring an unusual mixture of perspectives, all based on things I've done. They include infant teaching, BASIC programming (back in the days when IBM believed that micro-computers were merely toys), studies of systems thinking with the OU, a varied work history, practical work with teachers in rural Nigeria, organising online collaborative communities, more life experience than I care to admit, and - according to 'friends and family" - a tendancy to "think too much".

I'm not an academic so I don't quote research to back up my "findings". I simply describe what I know through first hand experience, and through discussions with people who I respect and trust.

3 - Education, learning and dadamac learning.

It's always dangerous to use words like "education" and "learning" because they mean different things to different people. There are endless possibilities for confusion and "people talking past each other". At one point (to avoid the misunderstanding caused when I described my own learning as "non-formal" or "online" or any such words in common use) I introduced a new description. I called it "dadamac learning". "Dadamac learning" named the the kind of learning that I did. It related to my Dadamac interests - but more importantly, by using "dadamac" as an adjective I was acknowledging that the learning I was describing was probably not what other people had in mind. "Dadamac learning" meant what I meant it to mean, end of story.

Words take meaning from their context. This can be problematic in our world where change is rapid and our conversations involve people with many different backgrounds and perspectives. I'm tempted to use "dadamac" as a kind of warning marker in front of any word that has a meaning in my mind which may not be echoed in yours. I won't actually use that device, as I'd be scattering "dadamac" everywhere - but please hold it in your consciousness as an anti-dote to misunderstanding between us as I take a look at some aspects of the learning systems that we have now.

4 - The Invisible College

Dougald HIne uses the term invisible college for much that is "happening around the edges of our education systems". In A Storm is Blowing from Paradise - which looks at our changing world and its impact on univierities - he explains about the invisible college, and describes various groups of people meeting together and learning things. They are learning for the sake of learning, not to pass exams or to get any kind of accreditation, and not following any set courses.

I give additional examples in Experiences of Invisible College in Action.

5 - Virtual academia - the name

Virtual academia is a title that I give to something which is similar to the invisible college, except it happens online - "in the cloud" - hence the "virtual".

I call it "academia" because when I was explaining the idea for an academic audience I wanted to describe it in ways that would map with their own experiences and expectations. (This approach probably shows I'm an infant teacher, not an academic. We were trained to set up our classrooms to "Always use as much first hand experience as possible." and "Look at it from the viewpoint of the learner" and "Build from the known to the unknown.")

Much of what I describe for virtual academia is also true of peer-to-peer learning at other levels. However, when I was describing it for academics, I justified the "academic" label by focussing on my own experiences of study in virtual academia which I could appropriately define as post-graduate, professional development.

6 - Virtual academia - the practicalities

In virtual academia people do the online equivalent of invisible college with its "learning get- togethers" in different locations and with different styles. Sometimes in virtual academia we meet in the cloud using a low-bandwidth channel option and typed messages. Sometimes we meet there using a high-bandwidth channel and a rich variety of sound, video, interactive displays and other features. Sometimes it is all done in "real time" and sometimes a channel is left open for people to drop by and contribute there when it suits them.

In a sense people in virtual academia are meeting in new dimensions of space and time. We don't meet according to the usual co-ordinates that define a physical meeting space, but we meet "somewhere in the cloud". Time is the main consideration for synchronous meetings (pre-arranged or opportunistic). Initial chit-chat tends to be checking what time of day it is for people in their local time zone, to get a feeling for their current situation and pressures on their time. "When are you?" is often a more useful questions than "Where are you?"

There are no set courses. Learning directions are often defined by a "need to know" related to some practical work, and the main approach to learning is peer-to-peer (P2P). P2P learning doesn't ncessarily mean "learning from people who are alike". In P2P learning in virtual academia people are "peers" because they have a shared interest - and they regard each other with mutual respect. They are typically learning with each other and also learning from each other.

There is a lot of questioning and seeking answers in relation to practical, real life problems. The fact that the peers come from different backgrounds with different areas of knowledge adds to the richness of the mix. People from different backgounds ask different kinds of questions - and the way those questions are framed can illustrate whole areas of related knowledge that were been previously unknown to other members of the group. Sometimes that will lead to a deeper investigation of that "new" area by other group members. Sometimes it will just be appreciated that there is someone in the group who does know that stuff so the rest of us don't need to.

7 - Established academia and virtual academia

When I was first developing the idea of virtual academia, I wanted to take every opprtunity to map it as closely as I could to the existing structures and systems in traditional universities. (This was for a contribution to Teaching and Learning Online, 2nd edition, edited by Brian Sutton and Anthony ‘Skip’ Basiel to be published later this year.)

Given I was naming my learning environment "virtual academia" I wanted to keep emphasising the overlap with traditional universities by calling "their" learning environment a term that was similar - hence "established academia".  

Established academia is just another name for normal, traditional universities. They may well be very modern in their apporoach, and they may also make enourmous and imaginative used of online tools. However, they are traditional in the way that they are structured regarding courses, accreditation, the roles of teachers and learners, and so on.

8 - Univeristies and polytechnics

One of the problems I found initially in comparing my work in virtual academia with work in established academia related to the practical focus of my studies.

My impression of how people learn in academia is that, not surprisingly, it's academic. As an outsider and a practitioner it seems to me that, in the areas I know about, even the practical field work of universities is often driven more by an academic agenda than by a genuine need-to-know. Obviously this is a huge over-generalisation. I do post-graduate professional delveopment in virtual academia, and any student doing post-graduate professional development in established academia will also bring deep knowledge of genuine problems and need-to-know to their studies. It may just be that, in virtual academia, there is more of an obvious, ongoing interweaving of the practical, the reflective, and the theorectical.

In A Storm is Blowing from Paradise Dougald referred to the demise of polytechnics, which in my mind were a wonderful combination of academic study and practical applications. It would have been interesting to compare the practical side of virtual academia with the best practice of polytechnics.  

9 - Bridge building and collaboration

I've been interested in the relationship between pratice and academia from the earliest days of my involvement with rural Nigeria. (This introduction to the late Peter Adutunji Oyawale explains how that involvement came about.)

Most of my attempts to build bridges have been a dismal falure. Although I have often found university events where the doors are open, and I have been welcome to go in, academics don't seem equally keen to "come outside and back over the bridge to visit my reality", a realilty of learning-by-doing combined with reflection and analysis.

My reality - the one that includes the invisible college and virtual academia - is one that I've been describing recenlty in terms of the Landscape of Change (see What's the Good of Landscape of Change?

I'm hopeful that some of Dougald's suggestions for the future of the university may encourage more academics to venture outside. I hope they will leave their accustomed places in "the Landscapes of the Past and Present". I hope they will visit some of the pioneers and educational outposts in the Landscape of Change and will get to know the world of the invisible college and virtual academia so that we can establish a culture of effective collaboration.

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